Such shows were typically aimed at an audience gathered around the rented set in the corner of the living room, with no means of recording the show for a later date. The advent of early home VCRs and the flowering of the local “video library” – typically found in the village electrical shop – seemed to mark the beginning of the end to this era of television.
Some of the medium’s seasonal tropes - the broadcasts of Billy Smart’s Circus or the BBC Pantomime – lasted well into the 1970s but their roots date from the time when the medium’s raison d'être was presenting a live spectacle. On Christmas Day 1965 William Hartnell’s Doctor, - part H G Wells scientist, part caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland - addresses the camera to wish a happy Christmas to those ‘at home’; it is a thousand pities that the episode is “missing, believed wiped”.
To view footage of black and white TV broadcasts of the 1950s or 1960s, with its shadowed sets, is to have the impression that one is witnessing a ghost world not so far removed from the Victorians. By 1958 the BBC Television Christmas Party had evolved into Christmas Night with the Stars, which remained a Corporation fixture for more than a decade. The final edition aired in 1972 and it seems faintly bizarre to see The Goodies, Cilla Black and Lulu in colour as it is a show that will be forever associated with bottles of Wincarnis and rousing numbers from Billy Cotton and His Band. David Nixon and Jack Warner were the perfect hosts, as they both conveyed the air of an amiable 19th-century paterfamilias hosting an afternoon of party games and although in 1964 the line-up may have included The Baron Knights but the ethos is still close to the magic lantern.
Only a handful of editions of Christmas Night with the Stars survive as fortunately does one gem from 1957. Hancock’s 43 Minutes – The East Cheam Repertory Company shows the Tony Hancock/Sidney James partnership at its finest. The joy of the show is not in some of the acts, or even the guest star is John Gregson but that it is presented within the context of the Railway Cuttings partnership. Hancock is resplendent in a white dinner jacket as he opens the show– only to discover that Sid has spent almost the entire budget of £2,500 leaving only 9d. The result is our hero having to introduce the sort of acts that brought about the death of Variety, especially John Vere’s spectacularly useless magician “Arnold” and the stunningly inept jugglers of Johnny Vyvyan and Mario Fabrizi. All the while, James is on hand to offer to reassure Hancock that matters will undoubtedly improve. They probably will not, of course, but Hancock knows that Sid is always reliably unreliable.
Another vital element of Christmas television was the festive edition of a BBC1 or ITV sitcom which, by the late 1970s, was an integral part of the day as much as the boxes of Meltis Newbury Fruits and various adults passing out post-Queen’s Speech. The format seemed to be set in stone; opening credits festooned with holly, the theme tune augmented with a choir and a plot involving “The Boss” making a surprise appearance dressed as Santa Claus. Naturally, he would be embraced by “the Mother in Law” under the mistletoe, the latter having over-indulged with cooking sherry, just as Roger, the caddish (i.e. he wears a cravat) sales rep who lives next door makes a surprise appearance. With hilarious consequences.
The best of the festive sitcoms did not merely involve Christmas trees falling over or people sitting on plum puddings for no well-defined reason but expanded on the familiar characters. No-one who has ever seen Yes Minister will forget either Nigel Hawthorne’s delivery of Sir Humphrey’s seasonal greetings or the incredulous reaction of Paul Eddington to the following:
‘I wonder if I might crave your momentary indulgence in order to discharge a by no means disagreeable obligation which has, over the years, become more or less established practice within government circles as we approach the terminal period of the year…’
One of the best examples of the genre is The Twenty-Six Year Itch transmitted on 25th December 1979 as the final edition of George and Mildred. George and Mildred remains a much-underrated show, with Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce creating a believable and very human married couple. The plot has George contemplating an affair with Beryl (the wonderful Patsy Rowlands), the new barmaid at the local pub but he could never face hurting Mildred. The sight of Murphy sat in the over-tinselled living room explaining that his marriage was not often happy ‘but sometimes that’s all you can expect’ conveys a sense of melancholy that would have wholly alien to Terry and June.
Perhaps the defining factors for a great Christmas comedy show are the investments of time, effort and imagination. The audience can innately sense when a show is the result of meticulous planning and execution. One of the highlights of the 1964 Christmas Night with the Stars was Benny Hill’s documentary spoof The Lonely One, concerning a Ton-Up boy delinquent “Willy Treader”, whose ambition is to be ‘someone important…like Albert Schweitzer or Screaming Lord Sutch’. The routine was possibly Hill’s finest creation as both writer and performer, a reminder of the great comedy actor who was largely overlooked by British cinema.
23 years later Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones in The Homemade Xmas Video was a reminder of suburban life at its most grim yet oddly life-affirming; at least the dreadful protagonists are enjoying themselves. It must also be said that the raid on the local forest involving a second-hand Austin Maxi getaway car is a highlight of 1980s television. At the end of the decade, The Jolly Boys’ Outing should have the natural conclusion to the misadventures of Derek and Rodney Trotter.
As a conclusion to this tribute to the ghosts of television past, Morecambe and Wise’s 1977 Christmas Special was their last and possibly greatest for the BBC. Above the quite incredible array of guests – Elton John, cast members of Dad’s Army and The Good Life, plus various dancing newsreaders – is the impression that every second on screen is the result of decades of experience. And in the opening Starsky and Hutch spoof, Eric’s look of utter bemusement as his police revolver becomes jammed in the umbrella of a passer-by is worth any number of Mrs. Brown’s Boys.
By Andrew Roberts